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Social studies

One of our big, black cows died

Posted on July 11, 2014 by Kathy Rusert
Black cowNormally we cut, rake and bale our own hay. However, the summer drought had forced us to buy hay. The quality was not really great, but it did give the cows something to eat. The investigation into our black cow’s death proved that she had choked on a single-use, plastic Walmart bag that had apparently blown into the field and had been baled into one of the 4 x 6 round bales we had purchased. 

When I shared the forensic findings with the students in my project-based eighth grade class, they all talked about how these plastic bags are polluting our ditches, lakes and rivers. They decided to research resources used to make these plastic bags and make this their class project. Building on their strengths and talents, they divided themselves into groups and researched energy resources; production of the bags; what could be used to reduce, reuse or recycle the bags; and publicity. This project was going to become their entry in the Arkansas Green Schools Challenge.

The reuseit.com website reports these Fast Facts on plastic bags: 
  • Over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide. Consider China, a country of 1.3 billion, which consumes 3 billion plastic bags daily, according to China Trade News.
  • About 1 million plastic bags are used every minute. 
  • A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. 
  • More than 3.5 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were discarded in 2008. 
  • Only 1 in 200 plastic bags in the UK are recycled (BBC). 
  • The United States goes through 100 billion single-use plastic bags. This costs retailers about $4 billion a year. 
  • Plastic bags are the second-most common type of ocean refuse, after cigarette butts (2008) 
  • Plastic bags remain toxic even after they break down. 
  • Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. 

Our local Walmart store was very supportive of this project and agreed to pay our class $300 if they could collect 100 pounds of bags for recycling—that would be about 250,000 bags. All bags collected would be taken to our local Walmart store for recycling. My students learned that recycled bags are not used to make more plastic bags; they’re used to make plastic lawn furniture! Our project won Platinum at the Arkansas Green Schools Challenge. Watch the video that shows how we researched, studied and presented information we learned about the bags and renewable energy. 

If you are someone who has lots of time to read the fine print on the side of the bags, it warns you to keep the bags away from babies and children. Maybe they should add big black cows!

Kathy Rusert is a teacher at Acorn High School in Mena, AR and a regular blogger on ReachEveryChild.com.  She often writes about the projects she does with her class and the funding she's able to receive from websites like DonorsChoose.org.

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